If You Only Buy 110 Books This Year, Buy These

(I just posted this on The Foghorn. Also up this week, an excerpt from Duelism.)

Last Sunday, the Telegraph released the inexplicable "110 Best Books: The Perfect Library," an exercise intended, I suppose, for budding autodidacts in possession of a generous Amazon gift card. The list is divided into categories, including Poetry, Children's Books, History, and the presumptuously-titled Books that Changed Your World—though I would like to meet the person whose world was changed by Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Tipping Point, and A Year in Provence. Once.


The list is a combination of the obvious (Homer, Shakespeare) with some safe if unremarkable choices (Trollope, Thackeray, Flaubert) and a few real curve balls (Eats Shoots and Leaves? The Day of the Triffids?) It also rests on the assumption that if you only had 110 books, 19 of them would be listed under Crime or Romance. Not to mention Science Fiction, a category whose laudatory introduction to Asimov begins, "It is not for literary brilliance that one approaches the first in the Foundation series . . . " Well, no. In this context, the judges' assurance that "Once you've finished this, 14 novels and countless more short stories await" seems more like a threat than a promise.


Not to mention the eerie arbitrariness of having exactly 110 books. What does it say about a person when they own just 110 books, among them A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and St. Augustine's Confessions?


Meanwhile, the New York Times kick-started their own literary argument with a recent blog post on the most overrated books. If you want to avoid apoplexy, do yourself a favor and don't read the comments. Suffice it to say that readers were quick to judge hefty stand-outs like Proust, Tolstoy, and Joyce as "unbearable;" perhaps they were using the word to mean "difficult to lift" and not "difficult to read." Meanwhile, the same aggrieved commentators bemoaned the exclusion of Ayn Rand (Books To Hide When Guests Come Over).


In this spirit I present my own reorganization of the Telegraph's picks into new categories:

Best Books That Appear, Mildewed and Worn, at Every Flea Market and Library Sale

Anthony Trollope, The Barchester Chronicles

William Makepeace Thackery, Vanity Fair


Best Books That Like Totally Changed Your World When You Were in High School

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
George Orwell, 1984
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
William Gibson, Neuromancer


Best Book By A Serious Author Who Nonetheless Use Character Names Like "Fanny Assingham"

Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady


Best All-Time Book To Whose Protagonist You Nevertheless Want to Give a Sound Beating

Marcel Proust, A la recherché du temps perdu


Best Books That You Read Again and Again While Wearing Stretch Pants and Eating Leftover Birthday Cake

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca

Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth


Best Books Most Often Cited by Earnest Bloggers

Tom Paine, The Rights of Man

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract


Best Books Tailor-Made for Tedious Five-Paragraph Essays

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Earnest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Toni Morrison, Beloved


Best History Book Featuring Magical Dolphins

Herodotus, The Histories


Best Children's Book About The Colonial Experience From the Point of View of an Elephant

Jean de Brunhoff, Babar


Best Children's Books With Homoerotic Subtexts

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows


Best Seldom-Read Books About Which People Nonetheless Enjoy Having Opinions

James Joyce, Ulysses

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

Sigmund Freud, On the Interpretation of Dreams

Charles Darwin, On the Origin of the Species


Best Books Whose Gist Is Easily Absorbed Without Bothering to Read Them

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

H.G. Wells, The Time Machine

Thomas Malory, Le Morte D'Arthur

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes

Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island


Best Books Of Which You Saw the Movie Version

Choderios de Laclos, Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Robert Graves, I, Claudius

Patrick O'Brian, Master and Commander

Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind

Boris Pasternak, Dr. Zhivago

Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

Thomas Harris, Red Dragon


Best Books of Which You Saw the Coen Brothers Movie Version

Homer, The Odyssey

Raymond Carver, The Big Sleep


Best Books Currently Being Used to Prop Up Your Futon

Karl Marx, Das Kapital

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire


Best Book This Author Admits She's Never Actually Read

George Eliot, Middlemarch


Best Books That, Let's Face It, Even the Judges Haven't Read

Diderot, L'Encyclopédie

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle